Is the fact of more women on the Vatican economic council a “progressive step” from the Pope or just a “fig leaf” covering up inequality?

– A “big shift” from the Pope on gender justice or still denying women a voice?

That’s the debate playing out now in the media after Francis appointed last week six new laywomen experts to the Vatican Council for the Economy.

News agency Reuters called the appointments a “big shift” marking “the latest attempt by the pope to keep promises to improve gender balance made years ago but which women’s groups have said were too slow in being realised”, and noting that the designations were “the largest number of women named at one time to Vatican posts”.

Newspaper The Guardian echoed that sentiment, calling the new Vatican nods to women a “progressive step” and “the most significant” gesture by Francis to date “to fulfil his promise of placing women in top positions” in the Church.

But Celia Viggo Wexler, the author of Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope, denounced in an August 11 article that the new appointments to the Vatican economic council are “just another fig leaf that serves to make Francis look progressive and the church more inclusive of women, while doing nothing to give them a voice in the church policies and religious practices that would actually represent the true elevation of women”.

– Nothing more a “public relations win”

“Why have women been recruited to the Vatican only when things look bad and resources are depleted? The financial management of the Roman Catholic Church has been the source of chaos and scandal, so Pope Francis has finally chosen this moment to enlist women so they can help clean up the mess”, Wexler decried in her piece.

The award-winning journalist, author and committed Catholic reformer noted that the six women on the fifteen-member Council will still need the votes of men to see their initiatives through the body.

Their proposals will largely concern administrative matters anyway, with the real financial heft in the Vatican being reserved for the more powerful Secretariat, as opposed to Council, for the Economy.

What’s more, the new female names on the Council are hardly thoroughgoing Catholic feminists, Wexler noted, with one in particular – Briton Ruth Kelly – having been a minister under former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and having been criticised by women’s rights advocates for her membership in conservative Catholic group Opus Dei.

That lack of a feminist voice on the Council – together with the new members’ lack of diversity and their inability to make a real difference in Catholic doctrine on matters such as birth control, the ordination of women or the rights of LGBTQ Catholics – all conspire to make the new appointments nothing more than a “public relations win for the Vatican”, Wexler alerted.

– “Having more women at the Vatican is better than having fewer. But this isn’t a breakthrough”

“I don’t mean to suggest that there is nothing good here… [but the new members] will toe the party line”, feminist theologian Mary Hunt wrote in an email to Wexler analysing the new appointments to the Vatican economic council.

“Having more women at the Vatican is better than having fewer. But don’t be misled. This isn’t a breakthrough, by any means. And once again, Francis fails to empower women to make a real difference in their church”, Wexler herself echoed Hunt’s sentiments.

What, then, would signal the real advancement of women in the Vatican?

For Wexler, a start would be having a woman in charge of one of the 22 most important offices in the Roman Curia, from the Secretariats of State or for the Economy to the various Holy See dicasteries, congregations, councils and tribunals.

Will Pope Francis be the pontiff to take that step?

More on Novena on women in the Vatican:

New lay female Vatican economic council member: “The Church cannot do without the charisms and vocations of women”

Catholic Women’s Council decries: “There is no justice in the Church as long as it is not realised in the equality of women and men”

Francis has boosted by 70% the number of women in Vatican leadership roles

Pope names six laywomen experts to Vatican Council for the Economy, confirms Cardinal Marx as coordinator


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.